In this age of information overload, the opportunity to watch a new blockbuster before a consensus of opinion has formed around it comes along all too rarely. Even if you make it to the first midnight preview, chances are the critical conversation is already well underway, fuelled by broken embargoes and social media snark. But last week I caught the latest Marvel behemoth before I’d heard a single word uttered about its quality, and came away feeling decidedly conflicted. Doctor Strange charts the evolution of Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular protagonist from narcissistic neurosurgeon to dimension-hopping wizard, under the tutelage of an androgynous mystic known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). While its out-there premise allows for some spectacularly trippy, Inception-inspired visual trickery, I was ultimately underwhelmed by a deeply formulaic origin story, riddled with clunky, on-the-nose dialogue. At times, I found myself wondering whether this might be the lucrative Disney subsidiary’s first flat-out commercial dud.
But over the course of the next few days, opinions began to appear online, and I was somewhat dumbfounded to witness people falling over themselves to heap praise on the film. Evidently, I seriously underestimated the impact its striking aesthetics would have on audiences. One of the most common criticisms levelled at the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its sterile visual uniformity, with much of its action unfolding across bland real-world backdrops – the central set-piece of the recent Captain America: Civil War takes place on the runways of Leipzig/Halle Airport, to cite just one comically unglamorous example. Doctor Strange, by way of contrast, offers sweeping Nepalese vistas, cities collapsing in on themselves, and the psychedelic spectacle of Cumberbatch falling inside his own eye. But while this goes some way to offset the fact that this is a story we’ve heard many times before, other serious shortcomings persist. Where a dash of wise-cracking humour benefited the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy immensely, here the self-conscious quips feel at odds with the prevailing sense of mystery. Meanwhile, cheap gags name-checking Adele and Beyoncé feel like patronising interjections from studio execs, nervous that things might be getting too weird for the multiplex crowd. And while the mere presence of heavyweight thesps like Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor lend things a certain gravitas, much of their screen time is spent standing around spouting expository psychobabble, which feels like an almost obscene squandering of talent.
And yet it appears that the vast majority of early viewers are perfectly happy to overlook these flaws, and have indeed been enchanted by what is essentially a high-octane mash-up of Batman Begins, The Matrix and Harry Potter. But I still can’t shake the feeling that some of you heading out this weekend, now thoroughly hyped for the year’s most mind-bending blockbuster, are destined to walk away disappointed.
Doctor Strange | Directed by Scott Derrickson (USA, 2016) with Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton. Starts Oct 27